Russell Westbrook is easily one of the 10 best players in the NBA, but he may not even be the second-most important ingredient in the Oklahoma City Thunder's championship recipe. Instead, that title may belong to Serge Ibaka.
Statistically, Ibaka's game has never really translated to playoff basketball, but that may be more of an indictment of him than of his style. A pick-and-pop power forward who can dominate on the defensive end is perfectly bred for the postseason. But for some reason, Ibaka's regular seasons just haven't continued into the playoffs.
The Thunder power forward shot just 44 percent from the field in last year's playoffs. So much of that had to do with him losing his sweet-spot shot, the mid-range jumper.
Ibaka's game before this year was so reliant on Westbrook. He needed his point guard to get him good looks in pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll situations. Now, though, Ibaka has been far more independent on the court.
Not only is Serge slightly better at creating his own shot, but he's also figured out pick-and-roll chemistry with Kevin Durant. He's improved as a pick setter (especially when it comes to knowing when to slip screens), and because of that, his overall game is more conducive to dealing with new, unexpected wrinkles in an opposing defense.
Ibaka shot just 25 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line in the 2012-13 playoffs. The loss of Westbrook would do that to him. It was the worst percentage from that area in his somewhat unacceptable postseason career, one in which he's shot just 30 percent from that distance.
Westbrook's game in the postseason has always been more consistent than Ibaka's. You know what you're going to get from playoff Russ. That's why his 21.8 player efficiency rating in the playoffs compares favorably to his 20.9 career PER in the regular season.
Someone like Westbrook can find comfort in the Thunder offense, knowing he can fall back on Durant. In the end, those two guys tend to do similar things.
They handle the ball. They score. They work well off each other. And with all that, Westbrook has been pretty much the same player in the playoffs as he's been in the regular season.
That consistency is the opposite of what Oklahoma City has seen from its power forward, and the Thunder shouldn't be happy with that. Neither should Ibaka.
This is a guy who is one of the NBA's top-tier pick-and-pop power forwards. He's shot 46 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line this season, matching his career percentage. Ibaka makes shots; that's one thing we know. Unless it's the playoffs.
Who is more important to the Thunder's title run?
This year, though, we've seen a different Ibaka.
We've seen one who has learned to adjust the arc of his shot depending on which defender is coming to close out on him. We've seen one who is generally smarter. And on the defensive end, we've seen an Ibaka who's learned to play a tighter game.
When it comes to Ibaka's importance, it's all about defense. That's where the "Serge Protector" truly earns his nickname.
Ibaka is currently leading the NBA in total blocks for the fourth year in a row. He's the ultimate deterrent around the rim, but that's not what makes his defense complete. It's just one aspect.
Until this season, Ibaka was never really a great defender.
He was a good one. He was a decorated one, coming off back-to-back All-Defensive teams. But he was far from complete and probably wasn't deserving of making either of those squads.
For Ibaka, the accolades came before the improvement. We'd think it should be the other way around, but on defense, voters tend to award blocks and steals over all else. Pick-and-roll defense, bodying guys up by the basket and intimidating opponents into not shooting don't exactly show up in the stat books.
So people tended to ignore Ibaka's inconsistent pick-and-roll D. They didn't account for him leaving his feet upon ball fake after ball fake. And Ibaka earned a reputation that didn't line up with the actual on-court play.
But now, everything's changed.
The Serge Protector is an actual protector now. Finally, Ibaka is one of the NBA's premier defenders. So maybe the Ibaka who struggled in the playoffs the past few years isn't the one we'll see in 2014.
One of the reasons Ibaka's defense didn't always work in the postseason was that he was too aggressive. And playoff offenses could take advantage of that.
If the postseason is all about discipline, and you have none of that, then you're probably going to find yourself in loads of trouble at some point. Teams like the Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs—you know, the ones the Thunder have met with in the playoffs over the last few seasons—will exploit those sorts of weaknesses like no one else.
There's old Ibaka, and now, there's new Ibaka. Old Ibaka would churn out plays like this:
(Note: I used this play as an example of improvement in a longer Ibaka article a month ago, but it was too perfectly microcosmic not to show a second time.)
Ibaka defended the first pick-and-roll perfectly, but the second time, he got overzealous, swiped at the ball-handler, and Andrew Nicholson had plenty of time and loads of room to release a wide-open jumper from 18 feet.
That was Ibaka last year, a model of inconsistency. This year, though, he's locked down. And it's possible Westbrook's long absence from the lineup actually helped him, at least at the offensive end.
Without his starting point guard, whom he relied on so heavily to score, Ibaka had to create new ways to get the ball into the hoop. He had to adapt, part of basketball Darwinism at its finest.
Now he can run the pick-and-pop properly with Durant. He can roll and finish around the hoop. He's moving off the ball and finding open spaces in the defense like he hasn't before.
Ibaka has been more consistent on both ends of the floor. And if you assume Westbrook does a lot of things Durant could do anyway, maybe Ibaka's steady presence on either side of the ball is the most important cog in the Thunder's run at a championship.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
*All statistics current as of March 14 and from Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.